World News

That’ll leave a hole in your pocket! Businessman who collects caves sinks $4m into his vast underground empire

  • John Ackerman holds the keys to more than 40 miles of caves
  • The 59-year-old owns the largest private cave in Minnesota
  • He estimates he’s spent $4million on cave exploration

By
Leon Watson


PUBLISHED:

09:07 GMT, 7 November 2013


|

UPDATED:

11:35 GMT, 7 November 2013

0

View
comments

This businessman has a hobby that has left a very deep hole in his pocket.

Big-time subterranean landlord John Ackerman has sunk $4million into his vast collection of caves.

The 59-year-old owns Spring Valley Caverns, the largest private cave in Minnesota but just the beginning of his underground empire, which he calls the Minnesota Cave Preserve.

He holds the keys to more than 40 miles of caves hidden beneath the rolling farm fields of Minnesota and Iowa and is always seeking more.

John Ackerman holds the keys to over 40 miles of caves hidden beneath the rolling farm fields of Minnesota and Iowa, and is always seeking more

John Ackerman holds the keys to over 40 miles of caves hidden beneath the rolling farm fields of Minnesota and Iowa, and is always seeking more

Mr Ackerman in a shaft entrance to his Temple of Doom, one of the 37 caves on his property near Spring Valley, Minnesota

Mr Ackerman in a shaft entrance to his Temple of Doom, one of the 37 caves on his property near Spring Valley, Minnesota

‘I think it’s just to be able to be the first human being to introduce light into the inky blackness of just unknown chambers that may go for miles,’ he said of his motivation.

‘And then later it’s to protect them so that they’re available for scientific research. That’s what keeps me going. That’s the adrenaline rush, is “What’s around the next corner?”‘

Mr Ackerman estimates he’s spent $4million on cave exploration and acquiring underground rights, but he doesn’t charge admission to the nature groups, scientists and cavers who visit.

It’s a hobby made possible by his successful furniture restoration business, he said.

Mr Ackerman, who lives in Farmington, just south of Minneapolis, said he discovered his love for spelunking as a boy when he poked around the caves along the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

Spring Valley Caverns was his first acquisition, in 1989, when he bought 600 acres of farmland. A previous owner had tried and failed to commercialize the half-mile-long cave below.

University of Minnesota scientist Larry Edwards, who is studying climate change, next to a stalagmite in south east Minnesota's Spring Vally Cave

University of Minnesota scientist Larry Edwards, who is studying climate change, next to a stalagmite in south east Minnesota’s Spring Vally Cave

Mr Ackerman, who lives in suburban Farmington, said he got the itch to explore caves as a boy when he poked around the caves along the Mississippi River in St Paul

Mr Ackerman, who lives in suburban Farmington, said he got the itch to explore caves as a boy when he poked around the caves along the Mississippi River in St Paul

Southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa are prime cave terrain, with soluble rock such as limestone eroded over time by running water.

For a person on the surface, sinkholes are a clue to finding caves, said Mr Ackerman, who claims to have discovered 43 caves that he now owns. All but one are in south-eastern Minnesota.

Once he finds a cave, Mr Ackerman says he approaches the landowner to buy some surface land with underground rights to the rest of the land. He then has an entrance drilled.

On a recent trip to Spring Valley Caverns, Mr Ackerman wore a light on his red helmet to pierce the darkness.

Dripping water was the only sound, and bats, just beginning to move into the cave to hibernate, were the only animal in sight. It was chilly; Mr Ackerman says the cave stays a consistent 48 degrees.

A remote section of the cave has a roaring river and a room big enough to hold a house, Mr Ackerman said.

‘It’s really an underground paradise. It’s unbelievable down there,’ he said.

Caves and scientiists from the University of Minnesota, work in a large cave in south-eastern Minnesota searching from clues to climate change

Caves and scientiists from the University of Minnesota, work in a large cave in south-eastern Minnesota searching from clues to climate change

Flowstone drapery of calcite forming inside Spring Valley Cave, Spring Valley, Minnesota
Mr Ackerman, pictured here in the 1980s, plans to be buried inside the cave when he dies

Flowstone drapery of calcite forming inside Spring Valley Cave, Spring Valley, Minnesota, (left) and (right) Mr Ackerman, pictured here in the 1980s

John Ackerman looking back to the place where he plans to be buried when he dies

John Ackerman looking back to the place where he plans to be buried when he dies

E Calvin Alexander Jr, an earth sciences professor at the University of Minnesota, describes Ackerman as both a friend and ‘one of the most Type A personalities that I’ve run into in a long, long time.’

‘He has single-handedly made available to scientists more miles of cave passage in Minnesota than anyone by far,’ Mr Alexander said.

His pursuit of caving hasn’t always gone smoothly. Mr Ackerman skirmished with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after the department bought a cave and erected a gate in 1999 to preserve it and keep out trespassers.

Cavers explore walls and ceiling of the 440million-year-old Dubuque limestone and dolostone formations to study climate change

Cavers explore walls and ceiling of the 440million-year-old Dubuque limestone and dolostone formations to study climate change

In 2004, Mr Ackerman bought some adjoining surface land along with underground rights to part of that cave and drilled a 75-foot shaft to reopen it to cavers.

‘That sort of thing rubbed people the wrong way,’ said Dean Wiseman, a spokesman for the National Speleological Society, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring and conserving caves. ‘He chose a course of action that some people disagreed with.’

Ed Quinn, a resource manager in the DNR’s Division of Parks and Trails, said his division had no issues with Ackerman nor any plans to pursue any of his caves.

‘We only acquire lands from willing sellers,’ Mr Quinn said.

Exploring caves is dangerous work, Mr Ackerman said.

‘I’ve had it all happen. Rock falls, near drowning, being stuck, running out of lights,’ he said. ‘Again, what I do (is) inherently dangerous, but the rewards for me, that’s the payoff.’

Mr Ackerman is divorced and has three grown children who aren’t interested in taking over the caves. He has approached the Minnesota Land Trust about preserving them, something the organisation is weighing, according to a spokesman.

‘Caves are scarce,’ Mr Ackerman said. ‘And it’s my wish to make sure the scientific community has access to all these caverns when I’m long gone – perpetual access.’

MOST WATCHED NEWS VIDEOS

MOST READ NEWS

READ ALSO:   Utah could put Breathalyzer-type devices in bars